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Tower Hamlets & Sunak roll back progress

In one horrible night, Tower Hamlets Council and the government have both pledged to roll back progress on climate emissions and active travel.

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Tower Hamlets to rip out schemes

Tower Hamlets Council’s cabinet has decided to remove most of their ‘Liveable Streets’ schemes around Columbia Road, Arnold Circus, Old Bethnal Green Road, and Brick Lane, despite pleas from local campaigners, GPs and health professionals, and school leaders, as well as TfL – and despite now repeated consultations showing a majority of residents supporting the schemes being retained.

Tower Hamlet’s Mayor Lutfur Rahman and council have agreed to spend millions removing the schemes and with the likely ongoing result that TfL and the Mayor of London will provide no further transport funding to the borough, costing the borough further millions in funding, until it demonstrates it can be trusted with such funding (TfL funded the existing schemes installation with the borough).

The silver lining in a hugely retrogressive step has been the decision to retain all 33 current School Streets schemes and a pledge to “invest £6m in new measures to make our roads safer and enhance our public spaces. And… new schemes that bring more people together to achieve cleaner air”, with the Mayor labelling the existing schemes “divisive”.

A borough divided?

The schemes have indeed been divisive – but in part because the current council have deliberately divided the borough between haves and have-nots. Two thirds of Tower Hamlets households do not have access to a car or van – this is a dense, multicultural borough with lots of pockets of deprivation. Yet this is a borough dominated by motor traffic – most of it from outside of the borough passing through, but significant amounts of traffic generated inside this inner London borough, by residents with cars.

Significant numbers of the councillors in the new administration are taxi or private hire drivers in their day jobs. And while residents who walk, cycle, have kids have begged for relief from drivers cutting through their neighbourhood (perhaps unsurprisingly, the current cabinet includes no women), their calls have not been heeded – this appears to be a council led by drivers for drivers. And the administration has chosen to divide the borough between those with cars and those who don’t count.

More cars please

Notably, successive previous administrations had done little to stem the motor traffic dominating the borough’s streets for decades until the last administration, which had started delivering a few Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) schemes under the ‘Liveable Streets’ brand. As a result, while neighbours Hackney saw motor vehicle ‘mode share’ drop nearly 40% in the last decade, in Tower Hamlets motor vehicle mode share was if anything rising pre-pandemic (see LCC’s latest Climate Safe Streets report).

The result of this new decision to remove schemes then will likely be more rapidly rising motor vehicle mode share, still congested main roads and the return of through (or “ratrun”) motor traffic to residential streets and with it increased pollution, road danger, climate-changing emissions, inactivity and more.

Local campaigners are raising money for a potential legal action and we will work with our local group, the Tower Hamlets Wheelers to campaign on the issues brought up by this scheme. All eyes now are on the council’s next steps – will they turn away from this horrifically regressive decision? And if they do manage to remove the schemes, those eyes will be watching to see the inevitable results.

Government Net Zero bonfire

The same night as Mayor Rahman was deciding to reduce safety for children and return residential streets to ratrunners, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gave a speech signalling a major government retreat from ‘Net Zero’ policies.

The speech saw Sunak scrapping plans to make landlords make rented properties more energy efficient, delay phase-out of gas boilers and delay the end of sale of new petrol and diesel cars. The latter was set for 2030 in November 2020, but Sunak has now pushed back to 2035.

Stranger still, Sunak also committed to veto policies no one had even mooted much let alone committed to. Sunak pledged to not implement policies to tax meat, force residents to have seven recycling bins and make car-sharing compulsory. Policies that hadn’t been put to the government directly or considered by them, it emerges.

Not only has this approach – essentially putting short-term profits and fears of change over longer-term support for climate action and indeed energy security etc. – been met with fury by active travel and climate campaigns but also by some in the motor industry. Ford’s UK Chair, Lisa Brankin, said the company “needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three “.

Conservative ex-ministers and business leaders have pointed out that not only will Sunak’s approach increase our reliance on oil and gas got often from Russia and countries not well aligned with British interests, it will also cause chaos and confusion for businesses set to invest in green technology. The Climate Change Committee has raised “concern” regarding the announcements and Professor Piers Forster, chair, said “the announcement is likely to take the UK further away from being able to meet its legal commitments.”

The long term picture

This national move appears mostly motivated by a hardening to ‘green’, ‘climate’ and ‘air quality’ action following the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election that saw some politicians assuming that voters either are, or can be, turned against such action. But the reality is that such action will only become more urgent and require bolder pace as the climate crisis deepens.

London has a target of reducing car mileage by over a quarter by 2030 to reach Net Zero and targets beyond that to reduce congestion, serious collisions and health inequalities. Similarly the current government has targets on Net Zero, as well as on active travel that mean politicians, whether in Westminster or Tower Hamlets, must take steps and soon to support rather than undermine progress, to look at all credible.

The night following Sunak and Rahman’s disastrous decisions, a third woman was killed while cycling in London in just over a month. A hit and run on a notorious ratrun left untreated in Hackney, but right on Tower Hamlets’ doorstep. Regardless of the causes of this specific collision, it would be rash indeed for our government, for Tower Hamlets’ leaders, to assume such tragic incidents will cease, that we’ll cut roads transport emissions and head off the climate crisis, that people will choose spontaneously to swap cars for other modes, without the structural support required from government and councils to enable these changes, and without an end to the ‘culture war’ some are fomenting around these issues.

On a more positive note, it also seems unlikely that urban voters particularly will continue to support politicians who actively delay, weaken or attack schemes to cut emissions and make our streets clean, healthy and safe.

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